At-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley hosted a hearing on a sexual health education program for Boston Public Schools recently that drew a large crowd -- and more than a little controversy. Her office is compiling a report based on the hearing and will submit recommendations for a citywide curriculum to the School Committee within the next month.
The ambitious proposal is not unusual for Pressley, a Dorchester resident and former political director for Senator John Kerry, who has made citywide youth issues like teen pregnancy, services for victims of violence, and criminalizing sex trafficking the focus of her first term.
Q. Why did you get involved in this push for comprehensive sex education?
A. When I joined the council, I created a new standing committee, called Women and Healthy Communities. I work on issues uniquely impacting women and girls, and one of those issues was teen pregnancy. We held a hearing on teen pregnancy, because we're in the middle of education reform, and I thought it prudent that we address the number one reason our girls are dropping out of school. I wanted to get to the root cause of why we're seeing a rise in teen pregnancy, how we can better support pregnant and parenting teens to create clear pathways to graduation, and what can we do to decrease those numbers.
At the end of the hearing, the Hyde Square Task Force asked if I would partner with them on this particular campaign. ... During the hearing, I had heard from parents who believed that their daughters would not have become pregnant had they had that conversation or if they were getting that information at school. As many parents as there are in 2011 who are comfortable talking with their kids about sex education, far too many parents are not. So, if parents are uncomfortable having that discussion and if there's no curriculum for it at BPS, that means our young people are receiving either zero information or a whole lot of misinformation.
Q. You've said that you don't want to just leave a bowl of condoms out in Boston Public Schools. What would the ideal reform look like to you?
A. I think it's unfortunate that this debate has wholly been couched in advocacy for increased condom availability, because what we're advocating for is a comprehensive sex-education curriculum that would be medically accurate, age-appropriate and culturally competent. It would include abstinence. And that education in tandem with increased condom availability only stands to result in the young people who are already sexually active practicing safer sex, which would mean fewer teen pregnancies and STIs.
The purpose of the hearing was to determine what the best Boston model would be; to hear from educators and parents and teachers, opponents and allies, about what that model would look like. ... We can look to other municipalities to see what they've done--many have one or two adults in a school who provide that information and accessibility to condoms—but I want us to develop a model that best suits Boston.
Q. This isn't something that you can legislate at the City Council level.
A. It is not. I consider BPS to be an ally in this. We have not met any opposition from them. We can all agree that something needs to be done.
To me, the most controversial thing is if we do nothing at all. If we care about educating our young people, we should care about educating them in totality. I believe their welfare is predicated upon their wellness. We have an obligation to make sure their access to this information is not arbitrary, and that's what it is right now. BPS, to their credit, has partnered with some outside groups, and so there are some schools which have provided supplemental education. But it needs to be comprehensive and it needs to be across the board.
Q. Is that going to be an uphill battle, given the funding constraints that BPS is already dealing with?
A. I don't know. I don't think so. I know that there is some training that is already happening within the existing teaching force. So, it's less of a matter of hiring more people, and more a matter of making sure that existing teachers are certified and have access to this information. We can lean on our partnerships with community health centers and other advocates that do this work as well. I'd need to speak more with BPS about what the potential costs would be. That was not the focus of the hearing. We talked more about the curriculum.
It now costs the Commonwealth $6,000 for every child born to a teen mom, and upwards of $37 million in public health care and $65 million in child welfare. So, I would argue that making sure that every student has access to this information to make healthy, fully informed decisions--so they don't endure the personal hardship, but also so that down the line, we're saving our Commonwealth and this city tax payer dollars--is worthwhile.
Q. Is it a challenge to discuss something so personal in a political setting? On the one hand, you've said you're not advocating for teens to have sex, but you also can't alienate the people most affected by this crisis by allowing shame to creep into the discussion. How do you negotiate that as a politician?
A. I don't want to alienate anyone. In order to determine what is the best model, I need to work with all the stakeholders. ... The group of young people who spearheaded this aren't just speaking for themselves, they're speaking on behalf of their peers. I believe they're representing those students who are sexually active and those who aren't. I haven't sensed a shame component, or an embarrassment factor.
I will say that certainly plays into why few of them are practicing safe sex. If you want to purchase a condom at a CVS, for example, they're often locked up. There are school-based school health centers, but in order for you to get access to that education and condoms, your parents would have to opt you in. ...
Where I've heard the most push-back and concern is from people who believe that we're advocating for government to usurp the authority and influence of parents. That couldn't be further from the truth. One of the reasons I pursued this with such zeal is based upon the fact that so many parents said they're not comfortable having this conversation with their children.
They're clamoring for this information, which is about so much more than sex, it's also about health, and healthy behaviors and healthy relationships. It's about equipping them with the tools and the information to send them on a life trajectory to making fully informed sexual decisions.
They already know how to have sex. I want them to have this information. ... The states with abstinence-only curriculum are leading the country in birth rates. This idea that teaching them how not to have sex works is simply false.
Q. Some people have criticized you for taking on issues that are "too big."
A. Every hearing that I've convened has been standing-room only, because there is a lack of advocacy in these issues.
If you were to ask me, in broad strokes, what is my work about, I'd say it's about breaking poverty and violent cycles. Can I single-handedly end poverty and violence tomorrow? No. But are there are thoughtful, incremental things that I can do now to dismantle systemic variables? Absolutely. And teen pregnancy is one of them.
We know that the academic success of every child is directly linked to the education level of their parent, in particular the mother, which is why we need to create clear and strong pathways to graduation for parenting teens. We know that on average a teen mom, after bearing her first child, within two years has a second. … I believe that a push for a comprehensive sex and health education curriculum is a battle that's big enough to matter and small enough to win.
Q. You've talked about your "commitment to girls" in the past. Do you see sex education as a girls issue?
A. No, certainly not. It's just that STIs disproportionately impact girls, just because we're more vulnerable to these infections, just by the nature of our biology. Girls are more impacted, and more socially pressured. And, they are the ones getting pregnant. It disproportionately impacts girls, but it affects everyone. It affects the fiscal and moral climate of this city. Everyone needs to take stake in a solution.
I'm very committed to the development and empowerment of all of our young people. I put a special emphasis on girls because I found that very often in youth advocacy work and programming, that the first tier is coed, the second tier is boy-centric, and girls are often the last and bottom rung. There is such an emphasis on supporting at-risk males, who are vulnerable to poor choices, but I have always felt there was an equity in that concern for girls. Being reared by a single mother with an absentee father, and as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault as an adult, I know intimately the very tough life experiences and challenges they're dealing with.
I also know broken girls grow up to be broken women. If you are a teen mom, ostracized by your peers, abandoned by the father of the child, and estranged from your parents, you don't complete your education. Your children are at a greater risk to be victims of violence, to be incarcerated. All these things connect. ... I'm not going to let anyone tell me to narrow my vision and focus. By doing that, I only stand to diminish my impact.
Q. You speak frequently about your personal experience, and how that's influenced your politics and agenda.
A. There's nothing unique about my story. The only thing unique about me is that I'm comfortable telling it.
My father struggled with addiction and was incarcerated. I'm a survivor of abuse. I was raised by a single mom. This story and narrative is normalized for too many people, and that's why I do the work that I do. I don't in anyway give short shrift to my rarefied experiences working for a US senator and a congressman. Both those positions have prepared me well for what I do every day. But I still maintain that what best qualifies me to do what I do are my life experiences.